In today’s global context, we are encountering changing forms of armed violence, removed from the conventional/traditional context of war. Unconventional conflicts are characterized by high rates of violence, often criminal, perpetrated by non-state actors battling each other, the state, and society.
The causes of such conflicts are often linked to a variety of socioeconomic vulnerabilities like poverty and exclusion that are exacerbated by a fragile state presence and response. Other factors, such as the abuse of force by police, the availability of arms, illicit trade networks, and a history of structural violence also serve to deepen these conflicts.
Unfortunately, conventional approaches of mediation and intervention are not suitable with actors that are often difficult to identify, unstable, fragmented and sometimes lack defined leadership: gangs, mafias and organized crime are just some examples. In reality, each of these unconventional conflicts is unique, often requiring a case by case approach, which means established blueprints for conflict mediation must be flexible.
Mediation and facilitation between such actors, and between these groups and the state, is not new it has just not been well documented, widely discussed or broadly disseminated. The Secretariat for Multidimensional Security of the OAS, with key partners such as The United Nations, Interpeace, The International Development Research Centre, and the European Union hosted a multi-stakeholder experts meeting on unconventional conflicts and violence in the Americas, involving participants from academia, NGOs, as well as international and local organizations.
We wanted to discuss approaches to unconventional conflicts to generate knowledge, content and experiences through a collaborative discussion. The intended outcome was that by documenting promising applications we can create a toolkit of principles or road map for moving forward and preventing and reducing such conflicts. We also hoped to create a network of practitioners to ensure sustained processes that offer viable preventative alternatives to the conventional repressive strategies that have failed in the past. The meeting specifically looked at cases of unconventional conflicts in El Salvador, Panamá, Los Angeles, Honduras, Rio de Janeiro, Jamaica, Baltimore, Ciudad Juárez and Colombia.
There emerged a strong consensus that repressive approaches do not work, and reconciliation needs more than simply a criminal justice approach. A public health perspective, for example, provides an adaptable model that approaches violence as a contagious disease, targeting and treating high-risk individuals and vulnerable areas. Prevention strategies that are built from the bottom up in a comprehensive and inclusive approach that focuses on the root causes and incorporates mediation and dialogue have therefore become a more feasible option.
The meeting succeeded in highlighting numerous key areas of focus as well as important aspects to include when tackling unconventional conflicts:
- Targeting the root causes of unconventional conflict
- Focusing on inclusive socioeconomic development through poverty reduction, youth education, etc…
- Encouraging private sector involvement
- Governments, NGOs and multilateral organizations need to work with the private sector to promote their involvement in initiatives focused on providing employment opportunity and alternatives to the criminal behavior.
- Eliminating established norms and cultures of violence
- Many actors in unconventional conflicts grow up in violent environments, establishing cultures and norms of violence that need to be changed.
- Inclusive approaches in mediation and dialogue
- Open, legal, and safe communication networks need to be established that allow for inclusive approaches that bring everyone to the table.
- Case-by-Case response
- Each case of unconventional conflict and violence is unique, and so they require case-by-case specific approaches.
- Comprehensive approach
- Effective responses require a unified, community-based strategy with the cooperation of multiple actors, from the state, international community, and civil society in a completely comprehensive and holistic approach.
- Prison/justice system reform
- Too much money is being devoted toward failing legislative/judicial systems that are imprisoning youth in “universities of crime.”
- Police need to be reformed as their inclusion, and active participation is essential to building trust in communities.
- Victims and Women
- Victims need to be included in dialogue and properly represented.
- The role of women, both as victims and peace enablers, needs to be brought to the forefront as a new angle to engage communities and approach the issue.
- The Media
- The media need to be included as they are often the driving force behind the dehumanization of the actors involved, pitting society against meditation and inclusion and encouraging heavy-handed approaches.
Violence and conflict are not a chronic condition, and so something can be done through intervention on different levels. While interventions may be limited, there is a need for a clear framework for action that takes into account the root causes and the need for a case by case approach with a preventative focus. Starting small and from the bottom allows for successful initiatives and approaches to expand and move up.
The complex and unique nature of unconventional conflict and its ensuing violence means that network building through shared practices is essential and truly beneficial on local, national and international scales. It also suggests the need for better monitoring and evaluation frameworks. When discussing approaches to deal with unconventional conflicts and violence there is a dire need to advance a new narrative based on prevention, inclusion, and comprehensive strategies involving numerous actors, both within and outside the legal spectrum.